Miriam Wallraven, Women Writers and the Occult in Literature and Culture: Female Lucifers, Priestesses, and Witches (New York: Routledge 2015) 236 pp. £95 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-138-82418-8
In Women Writers and the Occult in Literature and Culture: Female Lucifers, Priestesses and Witches Miriam Wallraven investigates the 'epistemological triad' of interrelationships between occultism, gender and text – an effort hitherto not undertaken by others, she says, as previous studies focussed only on binary relations between two of these three topics, e.g., gender - text, occultism - text, gender - occultism (26). Wallraven says she wants to show how the occult forms a specific literary voice and how the act of literary analysis can function as a form of historiography, promising new approaches to the role and function of literature in society (2) and opening up 'new horizons leading to the textual creation of new three-dimensional worlds' (16). She says the most important 'storyline' in her book is the diachronic one, because all the authors reference and build upon their predecessors in some or other way, making the further development of different female occult configurations possible. This supports a couple of secondary narratives, namely, the roles of witch, priestess and Lucifer which the authors and their characters take on (as stated in the subtitle), and the coalescence of these configurations with the generic properties of the texts under investigation (29). The latter manifests in individual self-representations (reflected in the autobiographies of Britten, Besant and Bailey – the topic of Chapter Three), individual fictional images (seen in Warner’s witch and Fortune’s priestess and goddess, discussed in Chapters Four and Five), 'simultaneous construction and deconstruction' of occult figurations (the texts of Carrington and Carter in Chapter Six), and the larger communal and social contexts in Starhawk’s and Charnas’ novels covered in Chapter Seven (29-30).
Further on in the Introduction and in Chapter Two, 'The Discursive Strategies and Functions of Occult and Gendered worlds in Literature', Wallraven expands on the scope of her project, arguing that despite the proliferation of spiritual and occult fiction in the twentieth century, academia suffers from a distinct 'occultophobia', stemming from the perception that modernism and postmodernism are mostly rational and secular, arising out of a Christianity-centred point of view. Whereas the latter’s master narratives have come under scrutiny in the postmodern era, the same cannot be said of the occult, exactly because 'they lack master narratives, sacred texts and carefully transmitted traditions' (2). Furthermore, esoteric women authors are confronted with a 'double marginalisation' in male-dominated societies: once because of their gender and being excluded from knowledge production, and twice because their subject departs from institutionalised religions. Wallraven says their marginalisation can best be explained by the concept of the 'semiosphere', a term defined by Yuri Lotman which proposes a semiotic space in which language and meaning intersects; where cultural norms and discourses are created in a dominant 'core' and disseminated into the rest of the semiosphere (21), while 'contrary' norms and systems of meaning have to exist in the edges of the sphere and from there attempt their way to the middle. As Wallraven remarks, 'Many women authors are and have been marginalised authors who write from the periphery of the semiosphere of any given patriarchal culture. However, they have to attempt to write themselves into the centre to a certain degree in order to be heard and read at all' (22).
This brings Wallraven to ask: Do occult texts question the relationship between dominant cultural centres and their peripheries despite, or because of, their marginal positions? Despite and because of their position, she says: 'Each text (chosen and analysed in the book) has to be regarded as a complex negotiation between a conscious position on the margins and a simultaneous attempt to make oneself heard in the centre' (23). Highlighting Lotman’s own observation that 'the hottest spots for the semioticizing process are the boundaries of the semiosphere', it is then no wonder that the witch features prominently in women’s occult writing, as she is the figure which par excellence 'straddles this boundary position by occupying a place between society and the known, and a space apart that is shrouded in mystery' (23). Her study, says Wallraven, challenges the notion of occult women’s marginalisation being the 'lunatic fringe', but also accommodates it, because the authors (chosen for this book) and their texts continuously move between an eccentricity compared with the mainstream and an attempt to be heard, understood and accepted there (23).
In Chapter Three, '"A mere instrument" or "proud as Lucifer?" Self-representations in the Occult Autobiographies of Emma Hardinge Britten (1900), Annie Besant (1893), and Alice A. Bailey (1951)', Wallraven says the issues of justification, authorisation and authentication in women’s occult autobiography combines into a 'potent mixture' of, firstly, getting the reader to acknowledge that the author is sharing a 'true', first-hand experience, secondly, engaging with a woman’s (anti-patriarchal) viewpoint, and, thirdly, believing in the reality of occult beings (35-6). Although all three authors have the same objective - to be heard and believed in the centre of the semiosphere - their use of different discourses shows the periphery offers room for different strategies (37) and indeed lay the foundation for the rest of the book (and by implication for all women occult writers in the twentieth century): thus the 'passive pole' of Britten shows in Dion Fortune’s The Sea Priestess; the 'active stance' of Besant is a motif in Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles; and Bailey’s 'destabilising humour and irony' rules Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (57).
In the next three chapters, ‘"She was a witch by vocation". The Emancipatory Strategies of Occult Transgression in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926)', '"She became a priestess". Occult Liminality, Psychoanalysis, and the Role of the Text in Dion Fortune’s The Sea Priestess (1938)', and 'Unreliable Occultism. Narrating the Occult - Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1976) and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977)', Wallraven respectively explores the themes of 'becoming witch', 'becoming priestess' and 'unreliable narrator'. For the analysis of Lolly Willowes, Todorov’s concept of the 'fantastic' is employed as a framework (62) - that magic moment when the reader 'hesitates' in deciding if something is real or not, while the character(s) in the story still keep their freedom to unrestrictedly move between the natural and the supernatural - while in The Sea Priestess psychoanalysis explains much of the ability of the main protagonist, Morgan, to constantly move between “being a woman, being a priestess and in this function mediating between the human and divine realms” (102). In The Hearing Trumpet, things are taken a step further with its surrealist (and postmodern) nature reinforcing the lack of dominant narratives and voices, with the presentation of the occult, and the divine feminine in particular, becoming 'non-affirmative' and 'non-devaluing' at the same time (109). As Wallraven comments, 'Both texts (The Hearing Trumpet and The Passion of New Eve) have the humorous deconstruction of occult feminine spirituality by narrative means in common' (133).
While the previous three chapters (and books) focus on the individual transformation of the occult/divine feminine, the next chapter, 'Occult Worlds. Utopias and Dystopias of Magical Power - Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994) and Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Holdfast Chronicles (1974-99)' shifts the focus to a 'greater communal and social context; in this way, occult worlds are created based on the images of witch, priestess and Goddess' (168). As Wallraven remarks, this reflects current twentieth-century concerns about the rise of fundamentalism and the simultaneous spread of alternative spiritualities ( 169), rounding off the argument she made in the introduction: 'While one answer to the modern and postmodern Western world is this pluralisation and individualisation of belief, the complementary answer is a growing fundamentalism in monotheistic religions. Religious fundamentalism profits from the loss of religious certainties in the twentieth century and is constituted by a combination of various “anti-modernist reactions”' (5). Not leaving the reader without hope, Wallraven closes with an 'outlook', an open path for the here and now in Chapter Eight, '"Standing before me she is familiar". Deciphering Esoteric Connections and Feminine Occult Power in Rose Flint’s Poetry' (174). As Wallraven notes, 'the connections that Rose Flint’s poems weave in these moments of awakening are based on the occult correspondences where everything is alive and based on the ecofeminist view of a non-hierarchical, embodied, animist cosmos' (192).
Wallraven delivers on her promise to investigate the 'epistemological triad' of occultism, gender and text through her primary diachronic storyline, as well as providing a solid introduction (and more) to the topic of female Lucifers, priestesses and witches, both in the authors and their characters. I recommend this book to students researching female writers, especially from the perspective of positioning on the margin in relation to the patriarchal core, but also to the general reader with an interest in the subject.
Tielman de Villiers, University of Hertfordshire